Three Self-Destructive Kvetches
December 1, 2023
By Rabbi Brent Gutmann

It’s been a little under eighteen months since my family and I moved to Western New York, and after eighteen months, I am completely enthralled.  This community has deep roots and rich culture.  It is dedicated and resilient, exceptional and diverse, and with measurements and projections about Buffalo’s and Western New York’s future looking demographically favorable, now is the time to invest in fortifying the kind of community that reflects our values.

Yet, I’ve also heard many kvetches (complaints) that threaten our greatness since I arrived.  Here are three:

“Buffalo’s Jewish community is shrinking!” But the data that supports this statement is inconclusive.  Erie Co.’s overall population has been shown to have grown steadily over the past decade, and the last reliable Buffalo Jewish population study was done in 2013.  Sure, it counted 12,050 Jewish individuals, down from a height in the late 1950’s, but overall growth in the region combined with my own experience with new Jewish arrivals to Western New York suggest otherwise.  Consider TBZ’s burgeoning monthly Young Family Service which now draws more than sixty individuals on average.

Another kvetch.  “We can’t afford it!”  This mentality leads to a self-affirming prophecy of “you get what you pay for” that must be ended.  Communities ruled by budgets see their infrastructure crumble and their professionals unsupported.  They are not prepared for crisis and their lack of efficacy stunts their impact.  On the other hand, exceptional communities generously maintain the gifts endowed by prior generations while continually attracting the best Jewish professionals they can to inspire us and our children with the sacredness and the wisdom of Judaism.  Instead of thinking about what we can afford, it is beyond time to begin thinking about what we need.

A final kvetch.  “I don’t need to join a synagogue!” or “I don’t need to give to Federation!”  This selfish statement wouldn’t make any sense to our grandparent’s generation, and that we hear it at all could be the consequence of our success.  Two generations ago, Jews were barred from joining many clubs.  World Jewry had just experienced the Holocaust.  Synagogues were one of the few places were Jews could openly identify and share their unique challenges.  Perhaps a silver lining to concerns about surging anti-Semitism is that we might rediscover how essential synagogues are.

Organized religion may not be the only way, but we have yet to discover a workable alternative.  No other institution in world history has proven itself more well equipped to support the needs of individuals and families.  No other institution in word history has proven itself more powerful as a force for societal change.  Moreover, recent weakening of religious institutions has correlated with a breakdown of cultural cohesion.

On the other hand, by strengthening our religious institutions, we make it easier to build consensus.  We make it easier to bridge cultural divides and shift the paradigm from “me” and “I” to “us” and “we.”  This lesson of “us” and “we” is one that is actually at the core of Torah, in the story arc we conclude this week of Jacob reconciling with his brother, Esau, and mirrored and reflected in coming weeks when Joseph’s will decide to reconcile with his brothers rather than seeking vengeance.

To offer a concrete example, Temple Beth Zion is launching the Blum Jewish Education Project which will offer Western New York middle and high school students the chance to learn about local history, architecture and culture, and to gain a deeper appreciation for Jewish heritage.  In a time of increasing antisemitism, this project has been conceived as preventative to this growing issue.  The project, which will begin bringing students in early December, provides a series of workshops for students in grades 6-12 that includes in-depth sessions about Jewish symbolism, the immigrant experience, and topics within the Common Core and New York State Standards.  For more information on the project visit www.blumproject.org.

Kvetching might simply be a part of who we are and sometimes we even find commonality in our kvetches, but we must resist kvetching when those kvetches become self-destructive.  It’s time to change the narrative about who we are, who we want to be and what is possible, and if we can work together towards that goal, our future impact will be immense.​

Brent Gutmann is Rabbi of Temple Beth Zion of Buffalo, New York.

Three Self-Destructive Kvetches - Jewish Thought of the week 2022